Review of Dana O’Driscoll’s Sacred Actions

Dana O’Driscoll’s new book Sacred Actions (Atglen, PA: Redfeather, 2021) offers its own best “short take” in its apt subtitle: “Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Sustainable Practices”.

[You can hear an interview with Dana on Druidcast episode 171, beginning around the 10:50 mark.]

Even if you’re not familiar with O’Driscoll’s wonderful blog, you’ll quickly recognize that this is an earned book. The author has lived everything she writes about (with her blog as a practicum for those wanting more), the book is rich in anecdote, and in turn that means you can test and try out everything and adapt it to your own life and circumstances. Here there’s no fluff or filler — the feel of the book is workshop — you want to get your hands dirty doing at least some of these things right now. Yesterday we picked strawberries at our local CSA (still massaging our backs this morning), and we enjoyed the first fruits of the season knowing how they grew, and who planted them, half a dozen miles from where we live. Eating strawberry shortcake: sacred action!

Druidry and Pagan practice more widely take many forms — that is one of their strengths. At the core of these life-ways, however, is a practice. While it’s possible to be an armchair Pagan or Druid, sacred action characterizes Druidry and Paganism at their best and most alive. Action, practice, doing all draw us into fuller life with the earth, air and water all around us. (We supply the fire, or not, through our choices.)

A poem I read years ago that I can’t track down now has as its last line “what it is you spent your life loving”. O’Driscoll’s book sends ripples of dissatisfaction through me — in a good way, because you journey with the author asking yourself that question and examining the effects of your answers all around you. The very good news is how many of these sacred actions are things I can begin today. Alternative ways to compost, to approach garden layout, to engage with the community, they’re here, along with so much else: ritual, recipe, reflection. But more significantly, this is a book that helps you find places for other how-to’s you’ve amassed by providing a view from the Tower, from the treetops, from the mountain. I keep being struck at how comprehensive the vision of the book is. O’Driscoll’s reach and grasp, appropriate to the Archdruid of AODA, are wide.

We’re a few days out from summer solstice (winter for folks down under) — both very apt times to think about food, its scarcity and abundance. O’Driscoll’s chapter 5 is “Summer Solstice: Food and Nourishment”. The middle class in the West has grown so accustomed to “what I want when I want it” that we’ve often lost touch with the seasonal cycles, and how mindfully the abundance of one season can be stored, preserved and cherished to feed us through other seasons. It’s a deep satisfaction to eat the ample summer and especially autumnal foods of pumpkins, squash, potatoes, and nuts through the winter, their nutrient riches beautifully aligning with our hunger for calories against the cold. That this is also spiritual act matters just as much. Home preservation of foods, an art within living memory of our parents and grandparents, if not a part of our own lives, is a particular skill that we can revive and benefit from, when foods are abundant, and store against times of scarcity.

One of O’Driscoll’s signal achievements in this book is to remind us practically and repeatedly and inspiringly how we already embody the sacred in what we do each day. We are called and re-called to our sacred human task of mediation. The opening paragraph of the Introduction is a declaration:

Every human being has an innate understanding of the sacred: it’s that feeling of reverence that we get when we enter an old-growth forest, it’s the wonder we feel when viewing a fresh snowfall, and it’s the magic of the amazing Milky Way in the night sky. And those of us drawn to Earth-based and pagan paths are drawn to building and establishing that sacred connection. Our sense of the sacred emerges through interaction between ourselves and our surroundings. It is through the combining of human reverence and thoughtful action with the outer energies of the land that the sacred is awakened. Another way we might think about the sacred is that it occurs when humans are living in harmony and balance with the living Earth, rather than living removed from it (pg. 12).

The sacred is what we do, as well as what we invite and welcome, throughout our lives. How much is up to us.

O’Driscoll’s first chapter launches us with “The Winter Solstice: The Ethics of Care”. In an earth-centered book, we might find that an odd season to begin. Why not with spring, or Samhain / Samhuinne, the traditional Celtic end of the old year and start of the new? North or south, solstice feels like an extreme — and that is the part of its character O’Driscoll wants to engage:

We begin our journey at the darkest point of the year … at the point when the light returned to the world, we are hoping, working, praying, believing, and enacting a better tomorrow. This is the energy of the winter solstice: the time when at the moment of utmost darkness, the light glimmers with the promise to return. The light of our sacred action is what I call the ethics of care … Most of today’s problems are rooted in a lack of care, compassion and connection for ourselves, for others and for the living Earth and all of her inhabitants (pg. 27).

With a wise spiritual diagnosis in hand, doors open. I can work in the smallest parts of my life, knowing I needn’t wait for the Powers That Be to “do something”. O’Driscoll notes, “When doing any work in the community, I have found it to be very forthcoming about where you are in your own lifestyle shifts. I talk about my struggles at various points with areas I am still working to change” (pg. 194). Or one of the Wise observes, “To volunteer from a position of strength is not to know what holiness is all about”.

O’Driscoll’s conclusion follows from the rest of the book: “we need people to do what they can, using the best aspects of their own contexts to make it happen” (pg. 232). “The important thing is starting the journey and making the decision to walk it each day”.

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